Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Kickstarter's Kick In The Butt For UK Banks

The news that Kickstarter, a US rewards-based crowdfunding operator, has opened a dedicated UK platform is hugely encouraging for anyone concerned about our banking problems.

No doubt Kickstarter is responding to demand from the UK-based entrepreneurs and their supporters who were already using the US platform. But it's also a big bet on the future of alternative finance in the UK, and Kickstarter's expansion will mean a lot of focus on the different ways that people can directly fund other people's personal finances, projects and businesses.

The term 'crowdfunding' first gained currency to describe US 'rewards-based' peer-to-peer platforms like ArtistShare and Kickstarter, and similar platforms already operate in the UK (e.g., Crowdfunder and those mentioned here). These platforms are designed to raise money for small budget projects via the internet without infringing laws that control the offer of 'securities' to the public. Entrepreneurs can post 'pitches' seeking donations, and may offer a 'reward' of some kind in return.

Other peer-to-peer finance platforms enable markets for personal loans and small business loans - called 'person-to-person lending' or 'peer-to-peer lending'. Examples include Zopa, Ratesetter and Funding Circle in the UK, Comunitae in Spain and IsePankur in Estonia which just announced that anyone from the EEA and Switzerland can lend to Estonian borrowers.

The peer-to-peer model has also been adapted to fund charities or not-for-profit projects, which is known as 'social finance' (e.g. Buzzbnk); and to enable many people to fund tiny local businesses in developing countries - referred to as 'micro-finance' (e.g. Kiva, MyC4).

Finally, the peer-to-peer model is being developed to enable direct investments in return for shares and more complex loan arrangements (debentures). This has proved impossible to date in the US, where even Lending Club and Prosper have had to register their peer-to-peer lending platforms with the Securities Exchange Commission. But in the UK, Crowdcube and, more recently, Seedrs and BankToTheFuture appear to have found ways through the regulatory maze to enable the crowd to invest in the shares of start-up companies. Abundance Generation enables funding for alternative energy. Kantox enables people to switch foreign currency and Platform Black enables the sale of trade invoices. CrowdBnk, Trillion Fund and CrowdMission say they're coming soon.

There are signs that the regulatory maze will become much easier to navigate. Both the US and UK governments have recognised that more needs to be done to encourage the growth of these alternative forms of finance. 

The US passed the JOBS Act to provide ways to enable crowd investment in securities. And against a backdrop of proposed legislative changes in the UK, the government has praised self-regulation by the industry and set up a working group to assess the need for changes to the legal framework. That working group includes representatives from the Office of Fair Trading, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, HM Treasury, the Financial Services Authority and the Cabinet Office. The Department for Culture Media and Sport is also interested in the potential for peer-to-peer finance to fund the development of arts and entertainment. 

The European Commission is also taking an interest in this field, and a regulatory summit is being planned in early December to introduce industry leaders and EU/UK policy-makers and regulatory officials to discuss proportionate regulation to encourage the responsible growth of peer-to-peer finance.

Kickstarter has made a pretty solid bet.

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